“A space to be curious and encouraged” – declaring a computing major with no prior experience

"For the first time I was really being encouraged to try and to ask questions about programming. That was not an opportunity that I had ever had before."
Sarah Kurata
Sarah Kurata

Sarah Kurata is a junior studying data science at the University of Michigan. She had never programmed before trying an introductory course in her first year of college, and has since gone on to work on multiple research projects in computing.

We sat down and talked with Sarah about her experience as a student who was new to computer and data science. Here’s some of what she had to say:

Before I came to Michigan I had never coded a line in my life

Growing up, both of my parents worked at Microsoft. My mom always always wanted me to try a programming class, especially as I got into high school, and I just never got around to it. I never saw it as relevant to anything that I was doing.

I went to a summer research camp in high school, and there was a section of it that required some level of programming experience that I wasn’t aware I needed. When we got to that part of the camp I was in a group of boys who all knew what was going on. Every time I asked if they could help me out or explain something to me they just didn’t give me the time of day. That gave me a really negative outlook on programming, and I thought it was just not for me. It was something for people smarter than me, and I was never going to be worth anyone’s time. If I didn’t get it then, then I was never going to get it.

Fast forward to when I came to Michigan. I found out about a class called Discover CS, EECS 110, which is offered to anyone without prior experience who wants to explore the discipline of computer science.  meant to specifically encourage women and other underrepresented people to consider computer science, and that was a really important experience for me. I met people who were at my level in that class. 

For the first time I was really being encouraged to try and to ask questions about programming. That was not an opportunity that I had ever had before. That space to be curious and encouraged regardless of failure gave me a whole new outlook on the people in computer science and computer science in general. It really encouraged me to stick with it, take the higher classes, and keep going in the major.

What I really like about computer science…

…is that it gives you access to this really powerful tool that lets you create anything, at any time, from anywhere; all you need is a computer.

I think that access really empowers you as a problem solver. There are so many different scenarios I’ve found myself in, even after just taking EECS 183 (Elementary Programming Concepts), where I’d say, “I think this app could be improved if they did this,” or, “I think this web design isn’t so intuitive.” In fact, I use a student-developed bus app to navigate the bus systems here, and that is all thanks to someone who felt empowered by computer science to fix a problem that they saw in their life.

What am I up to now?

The summer before my junior year I got to work on two different research projects with CS at their center. In one I worked with the instructors of Discover CS, the class I took my first year, and I analyzed the student data that came from that class to look at ways we can recruit more underrepresented minorities in CS and retain them through to graduation.

The other project was aimed at  introducing more ethics and social justice into computing education, an effort I hope to see impacting the curriculum in the years to come.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned…

…is that you should not compare yourself to other people. Especially in the discipline of computer science, everyone starts at such a different time in their life. There are boot camps teaching people as early as elementary school how to code, and you can’t compete with that if you just didn’t have the resources at that time or you weren’t interested yet. That was a big issue that I ran into going into college. I thought everyone would know more than me, I didn’t think anyone would want to help me – and that’s so not true.

One thing that has really encouraged me to stick with the program is the faculty

Something that I think is really unique to the CS program is that, despite it being a huge department with a ton of different disciplines, the faculty and instructors are really there to help you. They make it very clear from the start that they care about you just as much as they care about your success in the course. They give you a ton of technical resources, like six hour blocks of office hours every single day or hour response times on course discussion boards. But they also use time in lecture to talk about imposter syndrome, their own experiences with it, and how you can combat it, and they address problems of a toxic atmosphere in the department and the industry as a whole.

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